NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, revealed in a presentation at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center at Huntsville, Alabama, that NASA’s budget had received a US$300 million increase to its original budget request which raises it to US$19.9 billion for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY2019). But there were some shocks revealed. The International Space Station (ISS) is to have its state funding ended in 2025 – effectively meaning the end of the station unless commercial funding can be found to keep it working. The running cost and transportation cost savings to NASA will be about US$3 billion a year. A NASA grant of $150 million per year over the next five years is being made available for commercial companies to develop a smaller Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space station.
Having already cancelled the unpopular Asteroid Redirect Mission, the plan instigated by the Trump administration also cut a keynote science programme, the US$3.2 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) observatory. Instead there is a renewed emphasis on lunar exploration as a route to proving out technologies for an eventual human mission to Mars. NASA is officially committing to the construction of an orbiting space station around the Moon called Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, the first element of which will be the power and propulsion module. US$504 million of the FY2019 budget is being allocated to the platform design. The Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway will be used as a base for robotic landings on the moon, before eventual human astronaut landings sometime in the late 2020s – sometime after Donald Trump leaves office should he be re-elected. The 7.5 metric ton Power and Propulsion module is expected to make extensive use of the solar electric thruster technology which was being designed for the now cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission.
While threatened by newer (and cheaper to operate) commercial heavy lift rockets such as the recently flown Falcon Heavy, the Falcon BFR and the New Glenn rocket series, the NASA SLS heavy lift rocket got the filip it needed when the joint SLS/Orion programme had US$3.7 billion allocated to it for FY2019.
Nevertheless, long range human spaceflight still seems far off. The maiden flight of the SLS on mission EM-1 will be a one off flight of the Block 1 ICPS version of the SLS. It will carry the Orion capsule and service module as an unmanned test flight. This was supposed to have been in 2018 but will now take place in 2020. There will then be a hiatus in human exploration flight until 2023 when flight EM-2 – a manned flight will occur. This will be on the SLS Block 1B using the EUS (Exploration Upper Stage) currently being developed.
This will be after the power and propulsion module is launched the year before on a commercial flight – although SLS is still officially in the running.
While losing its WFIRST laboratory, NASA’s Science budget has been set at US$5.9 billion covering Earth and planetary science as well as astrophysics. While the full blown Asteroid Redirect Mission is cancelled, there is a budget allocation of US90 million for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test which will research deflection techniques in case any asteroid threatens Earth.